• Margie Marc

Memories in a Matchbox to Integrate Social Studies

Can you fit your life into a cigar box? Can you imagine leaving home forever, never to return? The Matchbox Diary by Paul Fleishman, illustrated by Bagram Ibotoulline, is a powerful story of immigration to the USA, the poverty which drives people to leave their homes and the struggles they encounter.

This story, written for 6 to 9-year-olds and told through the eyes of a small boy who later becomes a grandfather, is set in a specific context but its theme of immigration is truly transversal and poignantly relevant today.

“Pick whatever you like the most. Then I’ll tell you its story.”

Story summary

A little girl’s Italian grandfather shares his story by talking about objects stored inside tiny matchboxes which are kept in a cigar box. Each object sparks a memory for the grandfather as he shares his personal story of immigration with his granddaughter. As the grandfather couldn’t read and write before he went to America, these tiny matchbox objects served as a diary; a way to remember significant moments in his life.

To listen to the story click here.

Suggested ideas for CLIL

Natural Science

  • Use matchboxes to house a small collection of natural objects and make a natural science museum as a classroom table display with shells, stones, seeds, leaves or other small objects.

  • Investigate: in the story the little boy is frightened of the buttonhook man. What is a buttonhook? What disease was the buttonhook man looking for? What happens to people who have this disease?


  • Let children look at the illustrations on the pages of The Matchbox Diary. Ask how would you describe his style? What is unique about it? What colours does he use and why? Then have each child choose a part of The Matchbox Diary and illustrate it in their own style.

  • Invite children to make their own matchbox diaries using a template online or view this video tutorial. The matchboxes can be used in the language class to show their matchbox objects to classmates and tell the stories behind each one or make recordings. The recordings can then be transcribed to make a narrative. Finally, each matchbox can be placed on a timeline along with its written story.

  • Make a matchbox theatre. Watch Paul Fleischman’s presentation of his own matchbox theatres for ideas. They are inspiring!

Language Arts

  • What is Literacy? The grandfather constructs a matchbox diary because he is unable to read or write. Nevertheless, he is still able to look at a symbol (the object in each matchbox) and read its meaning. So, does being literate really only mean creating meaning from the symbols known as alphabetic letters and characters? What about reading symbols or visual images that are logos or are in advertisements? What about reading wordless picture books? The definition of literacy has actually been changing for quite some time and is no longer limited to the traditional definition of reading and writing, but what do our learners think? Pose these questions to children to push their thinking and challenge them to find examples that either support or refute their initial responses.

  • Alternatively, you could provoke reflection and conversation about literacy using the following questions. Why did the boy create a diary of matchboxes? Why did the boy stop keeping this diary? What are some ways you can record an event without writing about it?

Social Science

  • Invite children to talk about the experience of immigration. Speculate on the reasons why people might leave their country and what it might be like to begin a new life in a different country, often with a different language.

  • Ask children to interview a grandparent, older family member or friend to learn about family history. Talking about a family heirloom, an ornament, a favourite toy, an old photograph or even a favourite family recipe - all these can be used as a starting point for a family story.

  • Children can also interview family members to locate a migration story within their own family. They might need to consult their parents and go back a few generations to find someone who knows about an ancestor’s migration story. Help children to generate and prepare a set of general questions they could ask to learn as many details about the story as possible. Ask children to record the stories, then children can listen and write the story based on the interview and illustrate with photographs of their family members. As a class, each immigration story can be traced on a map of the world to create a meaningful visual display.

  • Ask children to investigate the lives of famous characters and speculate about what objects these people might put in their matchboxes and why?

The Matchbox Diary deals with multiple themes; migration, family, relationships, history and even racism. Through this one story, teachers can integrate these big social studies themes into many areas of learning and make these serious topics come alive for children.

By Margie Marc

Bio: Margie has been working in the field of education for many years. She loves the positive change that can be provoked through learning, for both students and teachers. Margie currently works as a teacher and teacher trainer, as well as a certified KiVa trainer.